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Half of first-year community college students lack basic English and math skills

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Over half of students who graduated in 2013 and subsequently enrolled in a North Carolina community college took one or more remedial or "developmental" courses in math and/or English.

The 2013-2014 academic year was the first year of major changes to placement policies and remedial courses offered by the N.C. Community College System.  In this week’s CommenTerry, I discuss these changes and their implications for K-12 and higher education in North Carolina.

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CommenTerry

Last year, I was one of the first to report that the 2012-2013 community college remediation rate for recent graduates of North Carolina high schools was 63 percent.  Thanks to the outstanding staff at the N.C. Community College System office in Raleigh, I have obtained the 2013-2014 statewide rate.  

Last year, 52 percent of recent high school graduates enrolled in one or more remedial or "developmental" math and/or English courses at a North Carolina community college.  Four out of ten students enrolled in developmental math courses, while over one-third enrolled in developmental reading and English courses (See Facts and Stats below).

At first glance, the change suggests that our graduates are entering our community colleges better prepared for college-level reading, English, and mathematics.  But beware of wily partisans who claim that the remediation rate "dropped" by 11 percentage points.  In the fall of 2013, the N.C. Community College System (NCCCS) began to implement a number of new diagnostic assessment and placement measures.  Thus, it is inappropriate to compare the 2013-2014 rates to those reported for previous academic years.

The NCCCS initiated a review of student placement and remedial course design in 2010.  Based on the recommendations of policy and subject-area experts, system leaders approved a number of new policies and practices that focus on better serving underprepared high school graduates.   Most notably, in 2013 they introduced a "multiple measures" policy that changed the way NCCCS institutions identify students required to enroll in revamped reading, English, and mathematics courses.

According to the system’s SuccessNC strategic plan, students who have graduated in the previous five years will be exempted from placement testing if they took four years of math (including Algebra II) in high school and earned a Grade Point Average (GPA) of 2.6 or higher.  The college administrators who developed this plan observed that GPA, unlike other performance metrics, is a sound predictor of college success.  Nevertheless, they will monitor students who enroll directly in college-level courses under the multiple measures policy and make modifications as needed.

These substantive changes to the remediation placement process will be implemented over three academic years.  Twenty-five community colleges adopted the new policy in preparation for the 2013 fall semester.  By next fall, all 58 of the state’s community colleges will use these new diagnostic assessment and placement measures. 

While the NCCCS should be congratulated for their efforts, they ultimately have little control over the underlying cause of the problem — recent graduates from North Carolina high schools that lack basic literacy and math skills.  Ultimately, the remediation rate is a reflection of the quality of a broad and vital segment of the state’s high school graduates.  And taxpayers should be troubled by the fact that over 14,000 of them enrolled in one or more remedial courses in a North Carolina community college during the 2013-2014 academic year.  NCCCS officials report that their colleges set aside approximately 10 percent of their respective budgets for remedial courses.

Finally, the remediation rate should call into question another indicator of student performance, the graduation rate.  Last year, the N.C. Department of Public Instruction announced that the statewide graduation rate was 83.9 percent, the highest recorded rate in the state’s history.  Fortunately, there is broad consensus among lawmakers, state education officials, and taxpayers that our public schools must focus on increasing the quantity and quality of high school graduates.  The vitality of our state’s economy depends on it.

Facts and Stats

High School Students Who Graduated and Enrolled in a Community College and Developmental Courses

Reporting Year: 2013-2014

Last Attended High School: 2013

Annual Unduplicated Count of High School Graduates

Unduplicated Student Count Enrolled in Developmental Math Courses

Unduplicated Student Count Enrolled in Developmental Reading and English Courses

Number of Students with One or More Developmental Courses

Total

27,406

41%

36%

52%

Source: North Carolina Community College System, November 24, 2014

Acronym of the Week

NCCCS — N.C. Community College System

Quote of the Week

"In 2011, 69 percent of recent high school graduates placed into at least one developmental course when they enrolled in a North Carolina community college.  In recent years, developmental education has consumed approximately 10 percent of the budgets at the state’s community colleges."

SuccessNC: North Carolina Community Colleges Final Report, 2013, pp. 32-34.

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As Vice President for Research, Dr. Stoops oversees the research team’s writing and analysis across the spectrum of public policy issues. He specializes in pre-K-12 education. Before joining the Locke Foundation, he worked as the program assistant for the Child… ...

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